“What the hell took you so long?” Businessman snapped when Pudgy finally entered the brownstone on West 11th Street. Three minor Thrush underlings stepped aside as the rotund man clamored in.
“Don’t start on me!” he spat back. “That dog was a piece of work.”
“Well? - did you take care of it?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Pudgy mumbled as he removed the dog’s leash and collar from his pocket and slam it down on the table. “That mutt is history.”
“Heh!” Underling Number One snickered when he caught glimpse of Pudgy’s injured right arm. “Looks like that cute little doggie bit off a chunk of your hide.”
Pudgy turned him and snarled. His left hand balled into a fist which then raised to strike the man chiding him. He hesitated and shook his head in disgust before bringing his attention to the UNCLE agent in the middle of the room.
The table stood in the center of what probably should have been a dining room. In its current state of disarray, the wooden contraption posing as a table sat amidst debris from the house’s renovation. Wood slats, old paint cans, rags, scraps of torn-down wallpaper, and a few tools lay about.
A fireplace on the longest wall was derelict and in dire need of a chimney sweep. Its mantle, once a beautiful sheet of white and gray marble, was cracked with large chunks laying on the floor beneath it.
Readily apparent was the thick layer of soundproofing material used to shield their words from outside prying ears.
Illya Kuryakin sat at on a low bench by the table. His hands had been shackled by handcuffs drilled into the wooden table top. The UNCLE agent’s handsome face was beginning to swell from the many strikes across it. Blood which had not yet dried streamed from his nose and lips.
But through the haze of his pain and the remnants of the drug they had used to subdue him, Kuryakin was barely able to understand what the two men were saying. It sickened him that they had to kill the dog, a true innocent in this whole affair. He did manage to keep his face as impassive as always so not to signal his concern about Bootsie.
“You are one tough sonofabitch to track down,” Businessman hissed as he backhanded the agent across the mouth for the umpteenth time. “I need to know exactly where the UNCLE entrances are.”
The Russian looked up at him with dazed eyes. He realized he was being interrogated, but doubted his captors know how debilitating the drugs they had given him were.
Underling Number Two approached the table and slammed down Businessman’s attaché case on to the tabletop.
“You do have the new serum, Sir,” Underling Number Two said in an almost taunting tone. “This would be a good time to try it out.”
Businessman chuckled. “Nah - I’m rather enjoying this,” he confided as he cracked his knuckles. “I want to see this bastard crack.”
That much Illya understood.
It was shortly after 1 o’clock in the morning when Businessman, Pudgy, and their posse gave up hopes of cracking Illya Kuryakin. The Russian’s energy had been sapped to where he could not even raise his head from the table.
Several empty vials and used syringes were strewn about the table, their contents having been forced into Kuryakin’s veins. The drug-aided interrogation had gotten out of hand, leaving Illya unconscious for short periods before they would revive him with adrenaline.
Odd distorted voices now filtered through Illya Kuryakin’s head with indistinguishable words. Illya knew the pain had been intense. His throat was sore from the obvious screaming he had done. His back and arms hurt, but he knew this was greatly lessened by shock. He felt wretched.
“This ain’t workin’!” Pudgy spat in utter disgust. His track record for getting what he wanted during an interrogation had just been sullied. “Get him downstairs!”
Businessman ordered his three underlings to unshackle the UNCLE agent from the table. Pudgy sauntered to the fireplace and brushed aside the debris in its well. Behind several burned logs were a series of buttons. The rotund Thrushman bent down and pushed them in an assigned sequence before the fireplace shifted slightly to the right.
It took both Businessman and Pudgy to move the fireplace far enough on its tracks to accommodate them and their team. plus one semiconscious UNCLE agent to the stairs hidden behind it.
The Underlings needed to carry Kuryakin and did so without compassion. Illya was too numb and weak to react to the rough treatment. The trip to the basement seemed endless.
At the bottom of the stairs they dumped the agent like a sack of potatoes. The floor was cold and a blast of white light flashed behind Kuryakin’s eyes as his head made contact with the concrete.
The room, a small basement, was completely barren. The walls were concrete; water stains and deep cracks discolored its surface, with several chunks missing, exposing cinder blocks beneath it. One solitary window with clouded glass had been framed into the wall, close to the ceiling.
When his eyes cleared, Illya noticed a hole in the middle of the floor. Through blurred vision he was able to discern a round grate, obviously hinged to the floor, standing upright.
Two of the Underlings brought Kuryakin to his feet and roughly grabbed both of his arms, drawing them tightly behind him. Metal handcuffs locked them in place. He was then forced to the center of the room.
The gaping hole and its grated lid were still a blur as they approached. The Underlings brought him to the rim then lifted him by the armpits. Pudgy appeared in front of the agent and took hold of the shaky legs.
Before Kuryakin could realize it, his knees were brought to his chest and he was lowered into the hole, his hands still cuffed behind his back. The Russian feebly tried escaping their strong grips, knowing damned well it was futile. Within seconds he was seated at the bottom with his head a mere twelve inches from the surface.
With a squeaky groan, the iron grate was lowered and padlocked in place, extinguishing his hopes of immediate escape.
The agent lifted his head to see his captors standing around the rim above him, looking down and testing the grate to make sure he was secure.
Pudgy wiped his dirty hands on his trousers. “That should hold him for a while,” he cackled. “I’ll call Viggio and see about getting that cement truck to come by in a day or two.”
A short while later - Illya could not discern exactly how long - the five Thrushmen left, turning off the light as they ascended the steps, leaving him in total darkness.
As Illya’s bleary eyes adjusted to the darkness, he did notice a little ambient lumination from the street lights filtering in through the window.
The circumference within the hole allowed for the agent’s girth with only a little room to spare. Illya wiggled his shoulders and moved his bent legs a bit to test the confines of his space. To his dismay, he was not surrounded by dirt. A metal tube had been planted into the ground and beneath him, thwarting any attempts to make the space larger by digging.
Illya knew he needed to reposition his arms. The pain caused by the unnatural position Thrush had placed him in was worsening. Fortunately there was a small amount of room surrounding him, so the agent tried feverishly to bring his shackled wrists forward by wriggling them under his buttocks. After several painful efforts, he succeeded.
Only after his hands were nestled behind thighs did he allow himself a short respite to catch his breath.
* * * * *
Illya Kuryakin did not know how he did it, but he had managed to fall asleep for a short period of time. Eventually. the cold, damp chill of the basement and the metal tube surrounding him roused his senses sufficiently to bring him to full awareness.
The agent looked up again. To his recollection, the amount of ambient light in the room had not changed, indicating that either he had slept for a relatively short time or throughout an entire day and into the next night. He assumed the former.
Feverishly, he began the task of bringing his shackled hands from behind his knees to in front of his legs. The space surrounding him left less room to maneuver as he would have liked. With awkward movements, the Russian tried bringing his right knee up close to his shoulder, with hopes of slipping his foot between the handcuffs. He had hoped to do that with each of his feet so his hands would be completely in front of him.
In a less serious moment, the agent may have found humor with how he looked. It would take a Houdini-esque person with a contortionist’s body to pry himself out of this position. Illya considered himself lithe and physically flexible, but the confines of the current surroundings made it nearly impossible to free his hands.
After repeated attempts, one foot made it through, then the other.
A little more light began filtering into his space, indicating that dawn was approaching. Illya looked up at the grating above his head and raised his arms to test the strength of the wrought iron cover. He pushed upwards with his shackled hands, but the grating would not budge.
When that did not work, the agent firmly planted his feet on the bottom of his confining space and pushed upwards. His body slowly raised. When his head reached the iron cover, he bowed it so his shoulders rested against the metal. With all the strength he could muster, Illya pressed upwards in hopes of forcing open the grate. Perhaps Thrush would have gotten sloppy and not secured the grate with their usual thoroughness. As usual, Thrush did their job sufficiently and the grate would not budge one iota.
The agent sat back down and brought his right knee as close to his chest as he could. He pulled up the stretchy fabric of the sweat pants above his knee and gingerly felt his shin for one of his plastique explosive faux scars. A small smile crossed lips when he found one and picked it off with his fingernails.
Pinching the plastique in his fingers, he once again stood and pushed his fingers through the iron grating. The padlock was too far out of his reach, but the hinges were within grasp. Kuryakin carefully pressed the explosive around the center of the hinge.
Once the plastique was in place, he opened his mouth and carefully twisted his rear left molar to remove the catalyst.The molar released its ingredient. Illya’s fingers were less nimble than usual and he found himself fumbling with the small capsule. He cursed the debilitating drugs Thrush had just used on him as the capsule slipped though his fingers and on to the floor of his confining space. His fingers felt sticky. Apparently he had squeezed a little too hard while trying to gain control of the capsule.
Illya Kuryakin shimmied down the tube and resigned himself to being stuck there for the long haul.
“You should be home by now, Napoleon,” he muttered to no one in particular. “Surely you’ve noticed I appear to be missing.”
* * * * *
Napoleon Solo sat on his brocade sofa and checked his wristwatch, debating whether or not to call Illya Kuryakin. The time read a little past midnight. His prickly Russian partner was often a night owl, and in all probability would not be annoyed at a late night phone call.
The UNCLE CEA had just gotten home from his long affair in Bangkok. He had written his preliminary report and then met with Alexander Waverly for his debriefing. He had checked in with Medical for a quick check-up. After tying up whatever loose ends he could before collapsing in fatigue, he headed home.
Upon entering his apartment, he poured himself a glass of scotch and gave a cursory look through the mail which had piled up. Realizing this could wait until the morning, he moved to the couch and decided to call his partner.
They had not seen each other for well over a week. Illya would have gone to Bangkok with him had he not been injured. It was nothing too horrendous, but the sprain to the Russian’s left arm could have been a liability had they gotten into a physical struggle with Thrush while in the Near East. Medical had not cleared Kuryakin for active duty, so Alexander Waverly partnered his CEA with another Section Two agent for this assignment.
Solo dialed Illya’s phone number. It rang repeatedly and remained unanswered. He decided to buck protocol and reach his partner with of his communicator. That, too, remained unanswered.
The agent activated his pen once more, this time to the Old Man.
“Have you heard from Illya this evening?” Solo asked his boss.
“No, Mr. Solo,” Waverly replied, a little miffed that his head agent would waste his time with this nonsense. “It’s rather late - perhaps he’s asleep.”
“He always answers the phone, though.”
“Mr. Solo, agent Kuryakin was here this afternoon, and is healing rather well, I must say. And we both know if Mr. Kuryakin doesn’t want to be bothered, he has a tendency to unplug the phone and put the communicator under his mattress.”
Napoleon chuckled - perhaps his boss was right. He signed off, pocketed his communicator, put on his jacket, and headed to Illya Kuryakin’s apartment.
It took less than fifteen minutes to reach Illya’s humble abode. Napoleon deactivated the alarms before entering and locked the door behind him. He stood in the small entranceway. Nothing seemed abnormal or out of place. No sign of any sort of struggle - just man and dog coexisting with relative peace.
The next stop was Illya’s bedroom. Despite the bunched up blanket which Solo assumed was the dog’s impromptu bed, everything appeared to be in order.
He looked around, trying to ascertain what his partner was wearing the last time he left the apartment. Solo checked out the contents of the closet. The few dark suits he owned were hanging, several with plastic bags fresh from Del Floria’s shop. Dress shirts hung next to the suits. Neckties rested on several pegs inside the closet door. Two casual jackets, one with suede-patch elbows, hung to the right of the shirts.
The agent looked down at the floor. Two pairs of dress shoes were neatly paired, along with hiking boots, casual loafers, and a pair of flip flops. The sneakers he often wore were missing.
After perusing the closet, Napoleon crossed the room to Illya’s dresser. He was a bit confused by what he saw on top; Illya had left his gun and communicator laying about. He was not sure whether his partner left in haste, or planned to be out for only a few minutes.
He proceeded to browse through dresser. Plenty of clean underwear was neatly folded and nestled together in the top drawer. The middle one held sweaters (mostly black), a few turtlenecks (mostly black as well), and an array of polo shirts. The bottom drawer contained several pairs of sweatpants and sweatshirts. Those in better condition were worn to the gym at Headquarters, and those less presentable were the Russian’s sleeping attire. A rather large space was left from where the ratty pairs of sweatpants were taken.
Solo sighed and surmised that his partner had been out for something mundane like walking the dog, and perhaps he would return soon. He sat on Illya’s old couch and waited more than an hour before heading back to Headquarters.
* * * * *
Dawn proved to be overcast that morning. The past few glorious days were like a tease, lulling New Yorkers into a false sense of comfort. Realistically, the savvy city-folk realized that the weather does change, and is often inclimate. But nearly a week of picture-perfect weather tends to make one forget about foreboding clouds and rain.
New Yorkers were beginning to leave their homes laden with raincoats and umbrellas in reaction to the dark morning clouds. The majority hoped the weather would hold out until they at least got to work that morning.
The weather was cooler than it had been the past week. The grassy areas were moist with the chilly dew that settled overnight.
Bootsie’s eyes opened at the sound of morning traffic. Honking cars and wheezing busses jostled her senses, still dull from her encounter with Pudgy the night before. Pedestrians walked by at a brisk pace. She lay still for a few moments while trying to make sense of the movement around her. A myriad of legs passed before her eyes, but she remained hidden behind the trees where the Thrushman had dumped her.
In a short while she stood on shaky legs and moved to the pavement in Washington Square. People scurried by barely noticing her. One or two people caught her eye, but she retreated to her safe spot behind the trees for security.
A little later the city calmed down a bit and Bootsie ventured out again. She looked around, wondering which way to go.
Despite the mass of humanity which just crossed her path, Bootsie did catch a slight remaining scent of Pudgy. She followed it and began retracing her steps from the night before.
She found her way to Christopher Street, then turned the corner to Bleeker. The canine stopped at the juncture of Bleeker and 11th Street and looked around again.
It was then that she caught scent of Illya Kuryakin.
Bootsie turned right and part way up 11th Street to the derelict house where her friend had been taken. She stopped at the stoop and sniffed, trying to determine whether Illya was inside or the trail had ended right there.
The steps smelled of both Illya and Pudgy, as well as Businessman and a few other people. She bounded up the stairs and barked, waiting for someone to open the door. When no one did, she sat and patiently waited for a short while. Dissatisfied and now impatient, she barked again and raised her front paws to the door, scratching and clawing like she did on Illya’s bedroom door when she wanted to enter.
But Illya did not appear to let her in.
She listened intently to see if any sounds came from behind the door . There were none.
* * * * *
Napoleon Solo entered the Old Man’s office without official invitation. Mr. Waverly did not seem particularly annoyed; in reality, he was expecting it.
“I’m concerned,” the CEA began. “It’s now after 10 am, and we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of Mr. Kuryakin. Am I to assume he has not contacted you either?”
Alexander Waverly sighed and shook his head. “No. I even called Agatha O’Donnell, his landlady. She knocked on his door, but there was no response. It appears that Mr. Kuryakin and Bootsie are officially missing.” The Old Man paused a moment. “Did you see anything out of the ordinary when you went to his apartment?”
“No, Sir. No sign of a struggle. Everything was where it should be. I am concerned that he left his UNCLE Special and communicator on the bureau, though.”
“He has been taking Bootsie out for a run every night before going to bed. Perhaps we can assume that was their last activity before disappearing off the face of the earth.”
Napoleon nodded in agreement. “I would like to take a few agents and scour the area, if that is all right with you.”
“Yes... go ahead, Mr. Solo.” Waverly sighed again. “Good luck.”
* * * * *
Bootsie’s barking resounded through the small window near the basement ceiling. Illya thought he was delusional, but he did recognize her ‘voice’ and began yelling to her.
After a moment, the canine picked up the sound from the basement and bounded down the front steps to the ground-level window. A wrought-iron grill graced the front of the window to keep out uninvited guests. It was old and rusted but quite effective as a barrier.
She buried her nose against the glass to pick up any recognizable scent. None came from the window, but she determined the voice to be that of her latest caretaker. With her tail wagging excitedly, she began scratching at the glass and barking.
But Illya still did not appear. Bootsie resigned herself to going back on the stoop and waiting for someone to open the door.
In a short while it began to drizzle. Fortunately for the dog, the entrance to the house was slightly recessed with an overhang protecting it further. Bootsie snuggled her body as close to the door as possible to remain dry. Eventually the drizzle turned into rain. There was little escape from the downpour which ensued, and Bootsie eventually got soaked.
Foot traffic on 11th Street was light that afternoon, and those who did pass by barely noticed the soggy mutt. She would occasionally bark at a person going past her and raise her wet paws to the door, scratching again, but people felt she was just waiting for her master to let her in, and ignored the dog.
* * * * *
April Dancer and Mark Slate were back from their recent assignment in Nevada. Solo called them into his office and explained the situation.
The trio decided that Solo and Dancer would pound the pavement in hopes of gaining a lead, while Slate stayed behind for the moment to research any fledgling Thrush activity in the immediate area.
By noon, the three had split to attend the task at hand.
By 1:30 pm, Mark Slate was in UNCLE’s communication room with news for both Napoleon Solo and April Dancer.
“It appears, Mates, that Thrush is buying derelict properties and turning them into mini substations. None have been completed, but they have the concept in the works.”
“Good news, Mark,” April responded. “What are the addresses of these properties?”
“Herein lies the problem,” Slate began.
“Let me guess!” Solo muttered, cutting off Mark’s explanation. “All the properties are being purchased under bogus names, steering us away from all ties to Thrush.”
“BINGO!” Mark said. “And we’ve checked a few of the names. They are fictitious, completely fabricated.”
“For us to go through all the properties that have been purchased in New York would take days,” April snapped. “I doubt we have that much time.”
“I’ll do the best I can from this end, Mates, but we may be looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Who is to say that he is even still in New York?”
Solo cut off communication grousing about how he positively hated haystacks.
* * * * *
Nighttime fell again. The rain had stopped, but the air was damp and colder than the previous nights.
Outside, Bootsie shivered on the wet step, unable to garner any attention to her plight. Inside, Illya Kuryakin shivered as well in his upright, circular tomb. He was hungry, thirsty, and chilled to the bone.
Throughout the night, the dog barked for long intervals. Several of the neighbors shouted out their windows in hopes of scaring her away. When that did not work, one of them called New York’s Animal Control Division to take her off the street.
A large van pulled down 11th Street and approached the address the neighbor had called in. As it neared, Bootsie watched a large man with a looped stick emerge from the truck. He very slowly and calmly waked towards her, talking in an even, friendly voice.
He reminded Bootsie of Pudgy, and she sensed that this man getting close to her could mean trouble. When he was almost with arm’s distance, she bounded off the steps and ran down the block towards Bleeker Street.
The man pursued her. But Bootsie’s four legs were faster than his two, and she was able to elude capture. Fortunately, traffic was light. She ran across Bleeker Street, and despite several pairs of screeching brakes and hostile drivers, she made it safely across.
Once across Bleeker Street, she wove between houses through alleyways and backyards, and eventually, the man from New York’s Animal Control Division gave up and ended his hunt.
Bootsie stopped in one of the alleys to rest and catch her breath. She caught scent of food in a nearby trash can and with relative ease, jumped up and knocked off its lid before tipping the can over to partake of its bounty. Someone had steak for dinner that night and did not believe in leftovers. The dog devoured the uneaten beef, along with half a baked potato and buttered bread.
The dog slowly but surely made her way back to 11th Street, wary of the man from the dog pound. When all seemed safe and secure, she found her way to Illya’s stoop and lay down to sleep.
* * * * *
Light began filtering through the window for a second time. Another day... another day imprisoned in the basement, below the floor.
Illya had weakened drastically. His head spun, his belly ached, his situation began making less and less sense.
It concerned him that his condition had deteriorated at such a fast pace. He had been held prisoner before, often for days on end with no food and little or no water. His mind could not focus well and much of what had happened to him the past few days was a blur. He felt the remnants of the beating and drugs.
He did have the presence of mind to realize that he may die in that little hole. He recollected Businessman and Pudgy talking about a man with a concrete truck coming by in a day or so. Was this the day? And just what did they intend to do with the concrete? Illya surmised that they planned to bring the piping down through the window and fill the hole... the hole which now trapped him... cutting off his life completely. Shivers went through his body.
If that were the case, he hoped he would be blessedly dead by the time they arrived.
The daylight faded into evening once again, seemingly taking an eternity to do so. Throughout the day, he heard barking from outside the window. Kuryakin could only assume it was Bootsie, and he knew the commotion she was making was useless. No one would think of entering a house being renovated to see what the commotion was about. The barking faded into muted sounds as Illya moved closer and closer towards unconsciousness.
* * * * *
Napoleon Solo and his team made absolutely no progress at all. All the leads Mark Slate were able to find were dead ends. Some were legitimate, others were not, but none of them in question housed Illya Kuryakin. The CEA petitioned to Mr. Waverly for more resources,
“There has been no information forthcoming about Mr. Kuryakin,” Alexander Waverly sighed. “Absolutely nothing has come across the airwaves by way of Thrush chatter, nor have we received any demands from them. For all we know he could be at the bottom of the East River.”
This tidbit of rationality did not bode well with Solo.
“Its a crap shoot, Sir. Fifty-fifty chance that he is either here nor not.,” Napoleon argued. “I would like to expand our search in hopes he is still alive and in the New York Metro area.”
“But we have no data to even substantiate expanding our search.”
Solo took a deep breath, not allowing a desperate plea escape his lips. “I have a gut feeling he’s still in our neck of the woods.”
Finally, the Old Man relented. “You have two additional agents and twenty-four hours, Mr. Solo.”
* * * * *
Illya Kuryakin knew he was dying. As hard as he tried to will himself to live... hold on to that last shard of hope his colleagues would find him... he knew it was not to be. Napoleon Solo had been back from Bangkok for several days - where the hell was he? He had found Illya in near-impossible circumstances in the past... why not now?
Surely Alexander Waverly would have sent out the troops after not hearing from the Russian for several days.
And he would die alone. Completely, utterly alone - ensconced in a vertical coffin-like tube less than a foot below the concrete floor. The only living creature who knew where he was lay outside and barked occasionally. Apparently no one paid attention to the dog.
Most UNCLE agents know their life spans rank lower on the scale than mere citizens. Illya rarely dwelled on it, but deep inside, he hoped that when his time was up, it would be quick and painless. Ideally, he would have preferred to die in his sleep - peaceful, comfortable... just not wake up the next morning. Generally, he was actually quite good at keeping the thoughts of a slow, painful death at bay. Had he obsessed about it, he would have bowed out of UNCLE ages ago.
But this type of loneliness, this degree of solitude, was frightening. As his acuity lessened, he chuckled to himself that it was generally HE who would choose to be alone. There were many times Napoleon or other agents would ask him to join them for the evening, and he would politely decline in preference of merely going home and enjoying the quiet of his own apartment. His own brand of downtime. What irony.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he mumbled, his mouth dry and cracked from dehydration.
The Russian floated from periods of unconsciousness to bleariness to moments of true lucidity. Being clear-minded frightened him the most, because it was then the true reality of his situation weighed on him. Fortunately, for his sanity, the periods of lucidity lessened and lessened as time passed.
Bootsie’s barking seemed to have ceased. Did she give up and leave? Has someone taken her in? Was she hit by a passing car? Did she currently occupy a cage at the local Dog Pound? Illya’s only connection with the outside world seemed to have abandon him. Moments later, the blackness of unconsciousness took him once more.
* * * * *
The following day proved to be a bit less incliment that the previous few. The sky remained overcast, but the rain had stopped and a promise of a few rays of sun seemed possible.
Bootsie had not abandoned her Illya. She kept watch of the front door from the stoop, still trying to get passersby to listen to her pleas and open the door.
During the midmorning traffic lull, a familiar scent wafted towards Bootsie.
Agatha O’Donnell had just gotten off a bus on Bleeker Street near 11th. She had a bag from the greengrocer in one hand, and a closed umbrella in the other.
When Bootsie actually saw her, she stood and twirled a few times on the stoop. As Agatha O’Donnell came closer, she barked, tapping her toenails impatiently on the granite.
The Landlady quickened her pace. “Bootsie? Is that you?” she asked as she neared the canine.
The dog barked a few more times then turned and stood on her hind legs, scratching at the front door.
Mrs. O’Donnell put down her package and the umbrella before walking up the few steps to peer into one of the door’s glass panels. All she could observe was the makings of a renovation. From the glass she was able to see part of a ladder, drop cloths, a few paint cans, and several tools laying about. She saw no blood on the door, and nothing from her vantage point indicated that there was anything dastardly going on inside the house.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, knowing no verbal answer would be forthcoming. But Bootsie was demonstrative and leaped off the steps and to the basement window with the iron grating.
The dog barked at the window and scratched at the rusty iron. Agatha O’Donnell crouched down and knocked on the glass. When she heard no response, she moved closer and cupped her hands around the window and peered into it. The cloudy glass made it opaque and impossible to see through.
Illya Kuryakin heard nothing at all.
The landlady tried to console the agitated canine. “Come on, girl,” she said softly. “Let me take you home.”
Bootsie backed away and took up her position on the stoop again. Agatha O’Donnell picked up her package and umbrella and headed home.
Within fifteen minutes, Mrs. O’Donnell had unlocked her door and was on the telephone.
“Mr. Waverly, please.....”
* * * * *
A generic black Buick pulled up to the house on 11th Street. Three men rushed out of the car and up the stoop where Bootsie stood watch.
The canine bared her teeth and growled, not knowing who these intruders were.
“It’s all right, Bootsie,” Mark Slate said softly as he neared the snarling dog. “We’re here to help Illya.”
Somehow Bootsie sensed that these men were safe. She recognized Mark’s scent from Illya’s apartment and ceased her growling. Feeling a slight sense of security, Slate moved a little closer and extended his hand for her to sniff. When it remained unbitten, he ran his hands through the fur on her ruff. “Good girl. Is Illya in there?”
The dog pulled away and turned to the door, jumping up and scratching at the wood again. The door had apparently taken quite a beating of the past few days; its wood was striated and mangled from her claws.
“I’ll go around back,” Joshua Smith said before trotting around the house. As he began turning down the alleyway, he caught sight of Solo and Dancer.
“Over here!” Simon Jenkins called to his CEA as they ran up 11th from Bleeker Street.
Jenkins was already working on the door’s lock when approached.
Napoleon Solo and April Dancer were slightly out of breath when they joined the other two agents by the front door. They were greeted with Bootsie baring her teeth as Napoleon neared, but ceased when she caught a whiff of their scents. Solo’s smell was all over Illya’s apartment, as well as Dancer’s.
“Be careful,” April warned. “You know how Thrush likes booby-trapping things.”
Jenkins merely snorted. Breaking and entering was one of his specialties. With a few flicks of his lockpick, the tumblers in the lock sprung open.
The CEA motioned for April to take hold of Bootsie before anyone entered the house. The wet, wiggly mutt put up resistance at first, but then settled down slightly. The dog was still ready to bolt into the house to find her Illya, but April proved to be the stronger of the two. “Shh, shh,” she soothed as she stroked the smelly, damp fur. “It’s okay.”
Napoleon went in first, giving the foyer and visible areas a cursory check. The white painter’s tarp appeared to sag ever so slightly at the end of the foyer. He motioned for his agents to stay back and await his signal before slowly, carefully waking towards it. When he reached the hem of the tarp, he gingerly lifted it to find a pressure-sensitive panel beneath it. Part of the floor had been cut away and the panel inserted, waiting for someone to inadvertently step on and activate it.
The panel was recessed over half an inch below the floorboards. Solo looked around and found a plank to lay across the opening, bridging the gap and making it safe to enter.
Solo went further and disabled a trip wire. Once he felt the house was safe to enter, he called in the troops.
Bootsie bounded in ahead of the pack, barking wildly and sniffing the floor as she ran. Her trail ended in the dining room. The wooden table which shackled her caretaker still stood in the center, but the cuffs had been removed. The dog raised her paws to the table and sniffed, whining slightly at the scent of blood. She clawed at the table for a few seconds before hopping down and scouting out the room for a second time.
The canine ended at the fireplace. She stopped for a few seconds and lowered her head, perhaps listening for a familiar voice. When none met her ears, she feverishly clawed at the fireplace’s well.
The UNCLE agents trusted her instincts and immediately began searching for trip switches to get behind the fireplace.
Bootsie continued barking and clawing the fireplace well, pushing aside old logs and debris she dug with her claws.
“There it is!” Solo announced as a little light reflected off the concealed control switch now showing from behind the logs. “Good girl,” he said as he shouldered his way past the dog.
Realizing it was futile to guess the code, Napoleon removed one of his cufflinks and pulled a foil sheet off the back. A sticky substance under the foil helped it adhere to the control box. Simon Jenkins shielded the dog, and all the agents covered their faces as Solo depressed the stem of his wristwatch.
A muffled ‘Poof!’ sounded, followed by a swirl of grayish smoke. Mark Slate stood up and pushed the mantle. After a few tries and help from Napoleon, it dislodged and slid to the right.
A set of stairs led to the basement. Before anyone could stop her, Bootsie bolted ahead and descended the steps. The agents held their breath in hopes that the basement was not wired or booby-trapped as well. Certainly the dog should have known the protocol of careful stealth upon entering uncharted territory.
Being that nothing exploded or set off alarms, the four agents followed Bootsie into the cellar. She stood at the rim of the hole where Illya had been imprisoned, barking and howling, stepping with trepidation on the grating above the Russian’s head.
Mark took out his flashlight and shone it into the hole. Illya was still - too still. His blond head rested on arms which cushioned his knees. Neither the agents’ voices or Bootsie’s barking roused him one iota.
They did not even have to test the grate to know how secure it was. The large lock bolting it shut was evidence enough.
“It looks like Illya tried blasting himself out of there,” April said, noting the plastique explosive still on the hinge. She assumed he could not get the catalyst on the plastique.
Solo removed his other cufflink and placed it on the lock. April pulled the dog away from the opening and the agents once again shielded their faces before activating the explosive.
Once the lock sprung open, Jenkins used his jacket to protect his hands while he removed it. Mark and Napoleon lifted the wrought iron grate and pulled Illya out of the hole.
April held fast to Bootsie, wrapping her arms around the dog’s body as she wriggled to free herself. Several times the dog turned her head and snarled at the agent, regardless of recognizing her scent. April’s voice was soothing, almost mesmerizing. The dog stopped growling and focused on trying to escape the lady’s grasp.
Mark and Napoleon lay Illya on the floor. Solo checked the pulse and was relieved to find even a thready one. Kuryakin’s breaths were shallow and unsteady, but he was breathing.
The Russian’s face was ghastly pale. Napoleon swallowed a lump in his throat as he observed his partner’s sunken eyes and cracked lips. Bruises darkened his cheeks and jaw. Dried blood clung to his face where he had been struck.
“Open Channel D - emergency!” Solo barked into his communicator. When the connection to headquarters was made, the CEA demanded a medical unit sent to the house immediately. He was barely able to get his message across with Bootsie’s continual barking.
Mark raised one of Illya’s eyelids then the other, only to find no response to light. He then felt around Illya’s chest and belly for internal injuries or broken bones. Fortunately there seemed to be none. After a rudimentary check of his arms and legs, Mark reached in his back pocket for a set of keys which contained one for handcuffs. Seconds later the Russian’s hands were freed.
When he finished, Napoleon looked at April and said “Let her go.”
Bootsie leaped out of April’s hold and over to Illya’s side in a flash. The barking ceased as the dog nuzzled her wet nose to Illya’s head and neck, trying to nudge him awake. She gently pawed at him and whimpered quietly before laying down by his side.
In the interim of quiet, Solo activated his communicator again and summoned Joshua Smith.
“All clear outside?” Solo asked.
“Yes, sir,” he responded. “You must have some clout with Headquarters. The ambulance is coming down 11th right now.”
It was not until Bootsie looked up at the steps and quietly stood, the fur on her back bristling, that the agents realized what Joshua Smith had just said. They had not requested an ambulance - Napoleon had asked for UNCLE’s own medical team to assist them.
The dog bared her teeth quietly growling, watching to see who descended the steps.
Two white-clad orderlies holding a stretcher between them were coming down the stairs. Without warning, Bootsie charged up the steps and sank her teeth into Pudgy’s leg. The force of her attack threw the rotund man off balance and he slid down the rest of the stairs, pulling Businessman along with him. Before they knew what was happening, the Thrushmen were staring down the barrels of four UNCLE specials.
“I thought you said you got rid of the damned dog!” Businessman snarled.
* * * * *
Illya Kuryakin remained insensate for a very long time. He never felt UNCLE’s real medical team remove him from the basement, nor did he realize he was being taken to Headquarters and tended to by Dr. Jonas Fine and Nurse Walker, his personal ‘favorites’. He felt none of the invasions on his body he so strenuously protested under usual circumstances.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Nurse Walker did muse that it was so much easier tending to the uncooperative Russian when he was out like a light .
The Medical team was able to insert the IV tubing despite veins shrunken by dehydration. Once the line was successfully in, they were able to infuse him with saline and dextrose, coupled with antibiotics and various other medications to help him start mending.
Three days being imprisoned on a hole had left him dirty, sweaty, and very, very smelly. Once the dire necessities were completed, Illya was wheeled into a small, warm room to be bathed.
Nurse Walker and her young coworker, Nurse Kalish, had the task of cleaning several day’s dirt and muck off Kuryakin. They moved him to a metal table beneath a long hose and showerhead. Before beginning, the nurses donned gloves and waterproof aprons to keep them dry.
The air in the room was balmy, uncomfortable for the two nurses. They realized, of course, that their comfort was not the issue, and they needed to prevent their patient from getting chilled.
Armed with soap and shampoo and large soft sponges, the ladies began their task of cleansing Kuryakin. The areas where the intravenous tubes were inserted had already been scrubbed prepped with iodine and betadine, so all they needed to do was keep that area relatively dry. Now the rest of the agent’s body... that was another story. The Russian remained unconscious for most of their ministering, which the duo greatly appreciated.
Nurse Kalish was about to rinse the shampoo out of Illya’s hair when his eyes bolted open. His right hand snaked out like a cobra, attacking Nurse Walker’s wrist. The young Miss Kalish stepped back in wide-eyed astonishment to keep out of harm’s way; she had heard about the Section 2 agents’ hair-trigger reactions. But Nurse Walker appeared unfazed.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” the petite 40-ish Nurse Walker said, little expression adorning her no-nonsense face. She stood stationary with Illya’s hand still grasped around her wrist. She knew better than to react. The seasoned nurse realized once Illya had gotten his bearings, a sense of where he was, he would release the death-grip and she could continue with the task at hand.
And she was right. It took only a few more seconds for Kuryakin to realize he was safe and in the care of Nurse Walker. He looked back, tilting hs head so he could see behind him, only to find Nurse Kalish still keeping her distance.
Nurse Walker brought her young coworker around to where Illya could actually see her.
“This, my friend, is Nurse Emily Kalish. She’s new,” Nurse Walker said with a chuckle. “She will get used to you guys at some point.”
Illya curtly nodded to the young nurse then relaxed his body to let the ladies finish bathing him. He was too tired and weak to raise a fuss. Without saying a word, the Russian shut his eyes again and apparently fell asleep.
* * * * *
The door to Illya’s hospital room swished open. Alexander Waverly passed through the threshold with Bootsie in tow. He seemed pleased that the formerly unruly cur had somehow developed a sense of decorum.
Once past the doorway, Bootsie forged ahead, aiming directly to her Illya. The Old Man refused to allow the dog to take control, and tugged back on her leash, only to be drawn to Illya’s bed faster than he had anticipated.
Napoleon Solo peered over top of the newspaper he was reading. Fortunately the paper hid the lower portion of his face from Alexander Waverly. It would have been a little awkward had his boss seen him chuckling. Waverly did notice the little crow’s feet at the corner of Solo’s eyes and the slight movement in his chest as he laughed, though. Napoleon immediately ceased.
The CEA stood up and took the dog’s leash. “Let me help you with that, Sir,” he said with a serious face.
By now Bootsie was standing by Illya’s bed, placing one big paw and then the other on the mattress. Like before, at the Russian’s apartment, the dog watched him sleeping and made the good choice not to pounce on him. Instead, she eased herself up on the bed and lay down next to him.
The movement of the mattress caused Illya to stir a bit, but he remained asleep. His face, bruised and swollen, looked at peace while he dozed.
“She smells better than the last time I saw her,” Solo commented, referring to the vile odors emanating from the dog’s fur during Illya’s rescue.
Waverly sat down in the chair next to his CEA. “I needed to send her to a vet before handing her back to lovely Cynthia,” the Old Man explained. He paused and sighed. Solo was not sure whether the sigh was brought on by Bootsie or lovely Cynthia. “Most of the people who have had contact with this mutt during the past week politely declined my request.” He paused again. “We seem to have developed a rather large epidemic of canine allergies here.”
Solo chuckled. “I assume to this dog in particular.”
“Apparently. Jordyn Alessio was the only person in this entire organization who would put up with her. She was kind enough to take Bootsie to the vet and then to a groomer.”
“Aah... a well-deserved ‘spa day’ for our four-legged friend, eh?”
“Yes. Very well-deserved.”
The two men paused as Illya Kuryakin shifted on the mattress. He sensed something different... perhaps the warm body next to him with fragrant freshly-shampooed fur. Bootsie perked up as her Illya moved and she nudged him with her snout.
The Russian turned away from the cold nose tickling his neck, and when it persisted, tried swatting it with his hand. But the dog was relentless, prodding him until he woke.
By the time the blue eyes opened, Bootsie was on all fours atop the mattress, gazing down at him and licking his face.
Kuryakin remained disoriented for a few seconds more, but when he realized where he was, a large smile spread across his face and he grabbed Bootsie, drawing her closer and hugging her against his chest.
“Good girl,” he whispered to her, stroking her gently. “Good girl!”
* * * * *
The Following Day.....
Illya Kuryakin lounged in the recliner which Nurse Walker had rolled into his room. His feet were elevated, his head back and eyes closed, while the daily edition of the New York Times lay partially read on his lap. He dozed peacefully.
He slept so soundly that he never heard Napoleon Solo enter his room. The CEA silently sat on the generic plastic chair next to his best friend, his partner, and reclaimed a section of the Times.
Before reading, he took a few moments to look at Illya. Kuryakin’s face was a little plumper - less gaunt - than the day before. His eyes seemed less sunken in, thanks to hydration, but gray shadows remained. The bruising had lightened slightly and the cuts appeared to be on mend.
Satisfied, Napoleon sat back and began perusing the New York Times’ front page. At some point, the rustling of the newspaper roused the Russian. Solo refolded the newspaper and stood up.
“How are you feeling, partner?” Napoleon asked, feeling Illya’s forehead for any sign of fever.
The Russian grunted quietly and tried repositioning himself. He sighed. “Much better, thanks to you, Napoleon.”
The CEA smiled. “Yes. Thanks to all our resources here at UNCLE plus one rather large canine.”
“Aah, Bootsie. Do you think she will adjust to a normal doggy existence?”
A snort of laughter escaped Solo’s throat. “From what I heard, she is pining for you. I assume life with lovely Cynthia leaves a lot to be desired. That child is so spoiled she will probably tire of Bootsie in a few weeks.”
“Hmmmm - at which point perhaps UNCLE should recruit and train her.”
“I seriously doubt Mr. Waverly would be interested in branching out to a Canine Unit.”
“She did use that little puppy brain of hers rather well, wouldn’t you say?” Illya mused.
“Shall I recommend you heading up the unit?” Napoleon chuckled.
Illya turned serious. “Thank you, no.”
A moment of awkward silence followed.
“Illya, there is no easy way of asking this.... but I have to ask you... Why on earth did you leave your gun and communicator home when you took out the dog?”
Kuryakin nodded, knowing his rationale was eventually going to be questioned.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “It was just pure stupidity on my part. I would wear my t-shirt and sweatpants when we ran, and my holster seemed too conspicuous and uncomfortable. The air was too warm for a sweatshirt or a jacket. As for my communicator, there’s simply no excuse for that. We were just going to be out for a few minutes... I guess I just got lulled into a false sense of security.”
“And that false sense of security almost cost you your life.”
“You are correct, Napoleon. It seemed truly out of character for me to be so careless,” Illya said softly, looking downward in embarrassment.
The CEA patted Illya’s shoulder. “Well, with that said, let’s consider this water under the bridge and move on.” His partner was only human, after all.
Kuryakin nodded and smiled a little.
“Hurry up and get well, will you? Mr. Waverly needs us to oversee security for his upcoming Heads of Departments conference in ten days.”
“Where has he decided to hold it this year?” Kuryakin asked, glad the topic had shifted to work.
“At a small midtown hotel,” Solo answered.
“Why doesn’t he just have the conference here?”
“The food at the hotel is better than our commissary’s.”
Illya actually laughed a little. “That is probably true.” He paused a few seconds. “And I will definitely bring my gun and communicator along with me this time!”